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Public Libraries Embrace Technology to Attract Citizens (Opinion)

February 3, 2010 By

As you might imagine, the recession hasn't been kind to public libraries. A glance at the American Library Association's online news page offers a grim chronicle of events.

  • The public library in Pacific Grove, Calif. -- a facility built in 1908 and frequented by author John Steinbeck in the 1930s -- was fighting for survival after the November failure of a local parcel tax measure to fund library operations.
  • The Naperville, Ill., Public Library put library hours and programs on the chopping block in October as officials there struggled to cope with more than $1 million in budget cuts for 2010.
  • That same month, the board of trustees for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh approved a plan to reduce library hours, close and merge locations, cut staff, and hike fines and fees. Officials were still trying to scrape up $1.2 million in state and local funds to avoid or soften the cutbacks.

The dire funding environment makes this month's cover story all the more compelling: Writer Russell Nichols takes a look at the enduring significance of the library system in American cities.

How have libraries remained relevant? Well, for one, they've embraced technology. Over the past decade, libraries have expanded their multimedia content collections and brought in video games that help improve information literacy and collaborative learning.

But it's not the technology alone that's important. Libraries, one of the last noncommercialized spaces in many communities, offer a unique setting for technology users -- especially kids. Gamers typically spend hours alone in front of a screen; libraries turn gaming into a social experience. Kids talk about strategy and engage in group problem-solving. Some even say they've developed a bigger interest in good, old-fashioned reading.

Luckily there's evidence that citizens understand the value of public libraries. For instance, Philadelphia residents united last fall to save 11 branches of the public library system from closing due to the city's financial crisis.

But that scenario will likely be repeated as local officials struggle to balance the need for library services, public safety, health, parks and other programs. More than 80 percent of library funds come from local tax receipts, according to the Online Computer Library Center, an Ohio-based nonprofit that promotes information access. With localities facing another grim budget year, library officials can count on even more competition for scarce operating dollars.

Yes, the Internet has turned information into a commodity, and books can be downloaded with a click of a mouse. But libraries remain an important part of the fabric of a community -- let's hope that local leaders continue to find ways to keep their doors open.


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